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‘Tootsie’s’ Shtick Does Not Fly

Michael Dorsey is an unmanageable, unlikeable, and unemployed New York actor. He is willing to do whatever it takes to land a gig, including pretending to be a woman. That is the premise of the musical Tootsie, now playing at the Durham Performing Arts Center.

Based on the 1982 film of the same name, starring Dustin Hoffman, Tootsie opened on Broadway in 2019 and won two Tony Awards, including Best Book of a Musical. Santino Fontana also earned a Best Actor nod for his portrayal of Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels.

But after a year of reckoning for American theater, and cries for equity, inclusion, and belonging, it seems unfathomable that anyone would think sending Tootsie on the road now smart. And yet, here we are, the second stop on a 27-city stretch for the non-equity tour.

On the outset, Tootsie seems like it just might be a love letter to theatergoers, like finding manna in the wilderness after a 20-month drought. But not long after its overture and snappy opening number, Tootsie succumbs to tropes and dick jokes.

Drew Becker as Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels is no Dustin Hoffman. Whereas Hoffman’s Dorothy was genteel, charming, and (dare I say) ladylike, Becker’s split persona is grating and lacks depth, substance, and believability. There is in fact no character arc or come-to-Jesus redemptive moment, and what is worse, Becker’s flippancy, opposite Ashley Alexandra’s grounded and vulnerable portrayal of Julie (his love interest), comes off as predatory and abusive.

There are moments of self-awareness where Robert Horn’s book acknowledges Michael’s wrongdoings. But those moments of clarity, offered by solid supporting characters, feel ill-timed and do little to assuage Tootsie’s incorrectness.

On the surface, Tootsie seems innocuous enough. But in a year in which the transgender and non-conforming community has not only seen a record number of violent attacks but also has been the target of ridicule in mass media, it is hard to look past Tootsie’s blind spots. Even in the theater industry, producers have called the casting of transgender women gimmicky. Sadly, Tootsie’s shtick does nothing to refute this kind of attack, and in fact, may perpetuate stereotypes and misinformation as it travels across the country, thereby doing more harm than good.

Tootsie runs through Sunday at the Durham Performing Arts Center. For more information visit https://www.dpacnc.com/.

Watch Lauren’s interview with Dr. Alisa Hurwitz on the importance of transgender and gender non-conforming representation onstage.

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